Ronin Round Table: Bringing Your Setting To Life–The Importance of Narrator Characters

By Joseph Carriker

In a game like A Song of Ice & Fire Roleplaying, the importance of narrator characters cannot be overstated. Looking at George R.R. Martin’s series, one of the things that truly sets it apart from so many other fantasy offerings out there is the richness and breadth of its cast of characters. It isn’t dire prophecies or terrifying monsters or ancient evils or magic weapons that drive the action of A Song of Ice & Fire—it is the people (although, it is notable, that some of those peoples’ motivations are based around prophecies, monsters, evils or magic in some way).

With this in mind, let’s take a look on how to put together a cast of narrator characters who can provide your chronicle with all the allies, villains, sidekicks, rivals, foils, and love interests you could ever want.

Step One: Useful Characters

First of all, figure out the roles that you’re going to need filled. The fact is, there are a lot of jobs that need to be taken care of in Westerosi society, and it is in the best interests of the powers that be to fill those roles with competent people. These people can’t help but become important in these arenas (whether village life, the running of a House seat, or the players in a major town or city), first professionally, but then personally.

So first and foremost, figure out the "roles" you’ll need filled. When generating a noble House, some of these roles have already been defined by House creation. The Influence Resource is used to purchase "slots" for members of the family, but it’s important to note that these roles aren’t the only ones members of the family can occupy—these are simply the available places for members of the House whose Status can rise above 2. (It’s also noteworthy that the Lady of the House is not purchased using this trait; her Status can rise to the Lord’s Status rating minus one without expending Influence for it.) Likewise, various Holdings indicate the presence of narrator characters, such as artisans, septons and maesters.

These need not be the only such characters, however. Take a look at the "Retainers, Servants & Household Knights" section of Chapter 6: House & Lands in the A Song of Ice & Fire Roleplaying core rulebook. These are roles that many Houses fill quite commonly, with the only real difference being the social standing of those who fill them: A Great House is likely to have the scions of their vassal Houses in such roles, while lesser Houses pick from among their own vassals, bastards, knights and even talented smallfolk. (We’ll be touching base on some more specifics of the kinds of roles you can find in castles in a future Ronin Round Table.)

Step Two: Introduce "Anchor" Characters

The next step is to determine who the "anchor" characters are. Ask the players to detail who the important characters in their lives are—a good rule of thumb is one member of the family with whom they have a strong relationship, and one non-familial character. These characters serve as "anchors" to player characters—individuals with whom the characters have emotional or practical investments.

Ask the players to take the time to define the nature and history of that connection, as well. Does the young lord retain a childlike affection for the old nanny who helped to raise him? Is the castellan an old campaign buddy of the Lord, always at his side no matter how lowly-born the knight in comparison to his lord? Does the Lady of the House feel motherly toward one of her Ladies’ maids, perhaps because the maid and her own now-deceased daughter played together as girls? Figuring these details out brings characters strongly to life…and makes their inevitable betrayals, harm at the hands of the House’s foes, or simple joys in life all the more intense as game progresses.

Step Three: Follow The Narrative Interests

At this point, you’re ready to play. But your job is only half done at this point, as the next part of making sure your chronicle benefits from powerful, vibrant narrator characters is to pay attention to the interests of the players. Certain characters will always spark player interest in some capacity—they might be the coolest-seeming characters, or the individuals that allow their own characters to shine best.

The characters that players are drawn to usually emphasize some aspect of the player’s own interests in the game, and can be great clues for getting a better idea of what kind of stories the players want to take part in. When a player’s "favorite" narrator character is the love interest, they are interested in stories with some element of romance; if they like their rivals best, they’re interested in tales of competition. As a Narrator, pay attention to this. Allow your players to guide your stories through the interests they express not only in their own character actions, but by expressing connection to and interest in certain narrator characters.

Step Four: Expand and Contract

Finally, as play goes on, you’ll find it most useful to occasionally expand and contract your cast. Take steps to "clean house" of extraneous narrator characters occasionally, clearing out old narrator characters that you’ve gotten the best use out of already, that the players have demonstrated they’re not really interested in or who simply are placeholders. This can happen through tragedy (illness or accidents), violence, marriage or other social responsibilities that take them away from regular play or any number of other methods.

When you do this, though, prepare to bring new characters into the cast to replace the old, particularly if the character who is leaving the fold occupies an important role in the running of the House or settlement. This is an excellent opportunity, as the players have no way of knowing where this person’s loyalties or competencies lie. Have they been somehow sent by their enemies? Do they have their own agendas? Do they have quirks of character that cause players to take an immediate dislike to them (which can itself later spawn resentment in the narrator character)?

Using these techniques, you’ll be able to put together a cast of characters that players will invest their interest in, providing ample opportunities for the kinds of dynamic relationships that make A Song of Ice & Fire such a character-motivated narrative.