A Vision of Ice and Fire

Robert J. Schwalb
This summer, Green Ronin is releasing A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, a brand-spanking new roleplaying game for George R. R. Martin’s remarkable saga of betrayal, conflict, treachery, love, death, and destiny as told in A Song of Ice and Fire. Fans of both roleplaying games and the novels likely know this isn’t the first attempt at capturing this detailed and engaging world for use in adventure gaming. Dragon Magazine published a couple of articles describing how to adapt Dungeons & Dragons for use in this setting, and Guardians of Order produced A Game of Thrones, a massive tome that adapted the d20 System and the Tri Stat system for use with this popular world. Fantasy Flight Games also publishes a collectable card game and a fine board game, all set in this world. With all the stuff already out there, it wasn’t without extensive discussion, debate, emails, and hair-pulling that we finally came up with the design, vision, and structure for what would become A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying when Green Ronin Publishing secured the rights to publish a new game based on George R.R. Martin’s work.
Tackling Martin’s world was in some ways similar to working on The Red Star, The Black Company, and Thieves’ World, and in others, astonishingly different. On the one hand, there’s a certain process involved in sifting through pages and pages of text, scouring dog-eared novels in search of an elusive nugget of information: a description of a specific castle, place, or character hidden between stretches of character development and dialogue. Each discovery is rewarding and exciting, but also deeply satisfying, teasing out the secrets of an author from his words. In this regard, the work was very much the same. Sure, there are all sorts of websites, wikis, and message board postings, and each was useful in its own way, but any adaptation must exhaust the source for all its mysteries to avoid errors born from misunderstandings and erroneous documentation regarding a place, character, or plot development.
Where the process differed was that in addition to collecting, cataloging, and presenting the necessary information for gamers to use in their games, SIFRP (for short) used an altogether new game system, one created from scratch to best emulate and handle the needs of the property. We could have returned to the Open Game License, or used our own True20 rules, but, for a variety of reasons (one of which was the impending release of the 4th Edition of D&D), we opted to build something to capture and mechanically reflect what made Martin’s novels so compelling in the first place. We wanted a game for the types of stories, adventures, and experiences one might expect in exploring the lands of the Seven Kingdoms, while also individuating our game from those fine efforts that came before.
To this end, Steve Kenson, Chris Pramas, Nicole Lindroos, and I exchanged a flurry of emails, engaged in numerous chats, and eventually gathered around a table in Seattle and hashed out the mechanics. The result was an interesting fusion of ideas, a broad range of visions from different perspectives and expectations, everything from a diceless system to a super-crunchy "simulation" style game. My own crunch-tastic inclinations met with some tempering from a more flexible and freeform approach that embraced the story more than an exercise in simulation.
Another thorny issue was figuring out how players would interact with the world, whether we would adopt a traditional RPG approach—one character per player, of any occupation or background—or to utilize a troupe-style approach, where players would control noble houses and work together, or against each other, depending on the developments of the story as it unfolds in the game. On the one hand, players often prefer maximum freedom in character design, but on the other, the more concessions we made toward providing flexibility in this area, the more we risked diminishing or negating the lack of "script immunity" faced by the protagonists in the novels. Our discussions drifted at all points along the spectrum, and in the end, we came up with an interesting compromise, wherein we provided a possible link to bind the characters together, but also allowed for just about any kind of play style so gamers of all stripes could use the game in whatever way they liked.
These sorts of discussions led into other areas, from which we derived a number of precepts that were more or less followed until the end of the design process. We wanted the learning curve to be low to make the game appealing to a broader range of players, but without sacrificing the depth of game design in order to retain those gamers that prefer a more mechanical approach. We also wanted a game robust enough to address all levels of society, from nobles to the lowliest of smallfolk. SIFRP needed a game engine to handle combat, intrigue, and warfare simply and without becoming tangled up in a lot of complex rules. SIFRP also needed to support just about any play style, from bands of adventurers prowling the ruins of lost civilizations in search of fabulous treasures (old-fashioned door-kicking, monster-slaying, treasure-stealing fantasy), to complex struggles fought using diplomacy and treachery in the shadow of the Iron Throne (a far more appropriate sort of game in keeping with the novels). The game needed to handle the clash of armies, the brutal and bloody skirmishes of a mist-shrouded forest, and the splintering of lances before roaring crowds at one of King Robert’s tournaments. A tall order to be sure, but these, among other elements, were central to our thinking as we hammered out the mechanisms that would drive the game forward.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll be highlighting the various game systems to reveal the mechanical and narrative elements at work in the game, explaining the design and development decisions that went into the making of Green Ronin’s newest roleplaying game. So keep checking back for updates as we march forward to the release date. Until then, remember the words of House Stark… Winter is Coming.