A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying

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Designer Journal : SIFRP: Conflict

"Words are like arrows... Once loosed, you cannot call them back."

—Doran Martell

Taking on A Song of Ice and Fire was tough. Obviously, there's the challenges of meeting fans' expectations, covering the world in enough detail to run campaigns, and all the other difficulties in game design, but, like other adaptations, an RPG based on a series of books brings to the table its own challenges. We've already chatted about dice and their myriad uses, but I thought I'd also spend some time talking about the why behind the dice, and, specifically, how you resolve conflict in the game.

By "conflict," I don't just mean two people swinging sticks at each other until one falls down; conflict also includes arguments, discussions, research, and just about any other thorny challenge arising in the game. Conflict, in my mind, is a key method for characters to grow and evolve in the game, the way for the plot to move forward, and the necessary ingredient to telling interesting and engaging stories. Conflict puts characters (and players) in difficult positions and how they respond to those challenges informs the Narrator and other players about the character's personality, values, goals, objectives, and all the other interesting bits that make roleplaying games so much fun.

There are lots of RPGs out there and each deals with conflict in its own way, so coming up with "yet another" system to drive this seemed a bit daunting. Resolving conflict in the game also needed more than just a die mechanism, some clever twist that would make the game stand up and scream. What we needed was a game that allowed conflict resolution to flow as much from roleplaying and character portrayal as it does from whatever shows on the face of the dice you just threw across the table.

As these thoughts crowded my attic, I spent a lot of time thinking about the primary modes of conflict presented in the novels, since my primary objective was to provide a system capable of emulating the books' various scenes. Combat, of course, came first. Westeros chokes on violence and battle. Armies clash with the slightest provocation, cruel killers stalk the streets, and roving brigands prey on the weak. It's a violent and nasty place. So, since we have combat, we also have war. Really, we can't punt on war, so it had to be in the RPG. Treachery and intrigues are important too since the events in A Game of Thrones and A Feast for Crows all rest on a complex web of alliances and betrayals, of deals and treacheries every bit as shocking and engaging as the battle scenes.

But there's more than kicking ass and telling isn't there? What about internal conflicts, such as Jon's struggle between his vows to the Night's Watch and his loyalties to his family? Or, what about digging into the past, such as when Sam scoured the tomes held in the vaults beneath Castle Black? There's also the supernatural conflict of Bran fighting to learn to control the budding powers and apprehend the new gifts that manifest with the opening of his third eye. Aren't these all conflicts? I'd say so.

With a pile of examples staring at me from my monitor, I knew I had to make some hard decisions about what needed mechanical expression in the game and what could be resolved through character portrayal and roleplaying. What we didn't want, and we all agreed, was an overly complex game shackling every aspect of the imagination to some dice roll or a corner-case rule; only the most diehard gamers enjoy complex rules systems (and before I'm burned in effigy on RPGnet or somewhere else, I'll say that I like my crunchy games, but not for SIFRP). Challenges needed some method for resolution, some way to deal with all the unpredictable elements that crop up during game play, so I settled on three major methods.

First comes roleplaying. This is how we deal with the inner challenges, the personal struggles, the agony of decision that comes from exploring the game world. These challenges might represent the tough choices of allocating experience, tracking injuries, and the like. They can also come from the tough personal conflict that arises from finding oneself in a difficult situation, where every outcome is uncertain and with disastrous consequences. These sorts of challenges shouldn't be reduced to dice rolls since they are best experienced as a natural outgrowth of just being true to your character. You don't need to roll dice to see if your character is sad or angry or frightened; these emotions arise through normal game play. This may seem elementary, but formulating my thoughts in this way led to a few other realizations dissolved some of my game preferences and made manifest some of the ridiculous elements that act as barriers to having fun.

Since I obviously wasn't going to let rules dictate emotions, I started really thinking about how this same freedom might apply to other game mechanics. At first, I had planned to put in the usual suspects: rules for climbing walls, some nightmare formula for jumping, riding, and all the other crunchy bits found in many games, but after some reflection (sitting in a bar, thick with a dozen beers, and a thicker bar tab), I realized most dice rolls involving basic checks/tests/etc. are really just opportunities to frustrate the plot. They create, in effect, roadblocks preventing access to the juiciest bits in the game. For example, if a character wants to climb a wall and they have a reasonable chance of doing so, why call a test? Because the rules tell you too? Because, you, as Narrator, want the character to fail? Is there some other reason? What I found, the more I thought about it, was that endless checks for every little task just paralyzes the player. Players are less likely to take risks or do things that lay outside the bounds of their character sheet if they have less than a 50% chance of success. If the player won't risk his character, the game dissolves into a bunch of people waiting for the chance to do something inside their areas of expertise.

I recognized (and still do) that certain types of tests have a place in the game, but only if those tests have dramatic consequences. Going back to the above example, a character who wants to climb a wall to look out over the city and can take his time doing so probably ought to be able to, especially if what the character sees from the top grants information to help move along the story. However, if the same character wanted to scramble up a wall to gain an advantage of some kind over his enemies in the thick of battle, a test is a good barrier. In order for that player to get the "edge," say a +1 bonus die on a Marksmanship test, the player must risk his resources against the consequences of failure, which, in this case, is a fall resulting in damage.

This sort of thinking liberates Narrators from having to micromanage each element while loosening the constraints on what players can do and how often they can do it. I think this goes a long way toward making folks feel like they are the true protagonists of the plot. Therefore, SIFRP embraces the notion that you only ever have to test your abilities when the outcome of that test has significant consequences. Does this mean that impossible stunts automatically happen? No, because doing something stupid, like balancing on a tightrope while playing a cello, could and should have dramatic consequences. What this does mean is ordinary tasks are possible without dragging the game into an exercise of dice-rolling.

Growing out of this madness was the realization that the next step above the narrative looseness was the simple challenge. A simple challenge has consequences but its resolution is binary: Yes or No, Success of Failure, Victory or Defeat. In general, I don't particularly like these challenges because pure success versus pure failure isn't altogether interesting or satisfying. I recognize there are instances in the game where these sorts of tests are important and so you'll see them.

Of far more interest to me (and hopefully to you) are complex challenges. Simply put, a complex challenge is like any other challenge, but it involves grades of success and grades of failure. When you engage in complex challenge, you test the ability as normal--and there is a threshold of success/failure, but you get to measure how well you succeed, or, in game speak, the margin of your success. Complex challenges come into play in three of the major conflicts: intrigue, combat, and war, those times when you pit your talents against those of an enemy and vice versa, but they can also appear when a character is researching some plot element, riding a horse through a hailstorm to warn the outpost of wildlings, and so on. When your character's life is on the line, it's nice to be rewarded for a good roll aside from a simple success. So, the game rewards good rolls (and sometimes sticks it too you for bad rolls), by giving you greater success for rolling high. Since the maximum roll is determined by how many dice you can roll, and since the number of dice you can roll is directly affected by how good you are at something, the game system recognizes characters who are superior in an ability (or specialty) often perform better than those who aren't. Again, this is pretty basic, but it does take the game a step further than one finds when your training and talent are outweighed by your luck.

So here we are, out of words again. I could go on about the psychology of conflict in the game, but I fear attention spans are withering. So, next time, we'll look at intrigues and how all three methods I've described find homes in an easy-to-learn system designed to support roleplaying. Before we go, however, here's a look at Jaime Lannister.

Ser Jaime Lannister Adult Fighter
Abilities and Specialties
Agility 4 —
Animal Handling 4 1B Ride
Athletics 4 —
Endurance 4 1B Resilience, 1B Stamina
Fighting 5 2B Long Blades, 2B Spears
Language (Common) 3 —
Persuasion 3 1B Taunt
Status 4 1B Breeding, 1B Tournaments
Warfare 3 1B Command
Base Attributes
Combat Defense 10 Intrigue Defense 8
Health 12 Composure 6
Superior Full Plate: AR 11; AP –2; Bulk 2 (Move 3 yds)
Excellent Longsword: 5T+1+2B (5 damage)
War Lance: 5T+1B (8 damage; bulk 2, impale, mounted, powerful, slow, vicious)
Large Shield: 5T–1P (2 damage; bulk 1, defensive +4)
Destiny 2 Points
Benefits: Blood of the Andals, Long Blade Fighter I, Long Blade Fighter II, Man of the Kingsguard, Talented (Fighting), Tourney Knight
Drawbacks: Ignoble, Reviled

A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying